February 13, 2012

Wichita school board appears ready to approve boundary plan

The Wichita school board appeared on track Monday to approve a boundary proposal that would close five schools, move several programs and affect school assignments for about 5,000 students.

The Wichita school board appeared on track Monday to approve a boundary proposal that would close five schools, move several programs and affect school assignments for about 5,000 students.

The board also voted to extend Superintendent John Allison’s contract for another year – through 2015 – and changed a clause in his contract that would have required him to earn a doctorate of education degree by Aug. 1 of this year.

Allison was hired in July 2009 at a base salary of about $225,000 a year. His original contract required him to complete his doctoral work by Aug. 1, when he would get a $20,000 raise to his base salary.

The new contract, approved following an executive session Monday evening, says the superintendent is “encouraged to obtain” his doctorate but sets no deadline.

It also says the board “will consider increasing the superintendent’s base salary by an appropriate amount” if and when he completes the degree.

In addition to his salary, Allison receives $750 a month car allowance and $500 a month for “professional, civic and incidental expenses.”

The board also approved a settlement with Westar Energy that would raise the district’s electric rates by about 1 percent, or $64,000 a year – down from more than 5 percent a year that Westar originally had proposed.

Boundary discussion

Earlier in the evening Monday, the main topic once again was new school boundaries. Board members voted to schedule a public hearing about school closings on March 5, as required by state law.

They are expected to vote on new attendance boundaries, which are contingent upon certain closures, a week before that, on Feb. 27.

Allison’s boundary plan suggests shutting four Wichita elementary schools – Bryant, Emerson, Lincoln and Mueller – as a cost-cutting measure. The plan also would close Northeast Magnet High School, 1847 N. Chautauqua, and relocate the program to a new school being built at 53rd North and Rock Road.

During a special meeting last week, board member Lanora Nolan had asked Allison to “look at the viability” of closing Black Elementary instead of Bryant. Nolan said she recently had learned additional information from parents and others who were concerned about traffic, relocating a special-education program and other issues.

On Monday, board president Betty Arnold read a prepared statement explaining that because Nolan’s request would require about four hours additional work by the district’s consultants, it would require a majority vote to move forward.

“We were asked for our input at each critical juncture along the way, and we as a board gave our support at each critical juncture,” Arnold said.

“In light of this, there are no surprises tonight, and it would be disingenuous for us to portray otherwise.”

She went on to explain the process leading up to Allison’s boundary proposal, which involved work with consultants and a community focus group appointed by the superintendent.

“Unless a motion is made … we will proceed with the current proposal that the superintendent has prepared,” Arnold said, and she turned to Nolan.

“Oh, I have no doubt in my mind that that motion would not be seconded,” Nolan responded. “So I will table that, and we can proceed.”

On her way to the executive session, a visibly frustrated Nolan said, “Clearly, the time for asking questions has passed.”

Allison said a reduction in state per-pupil funding means the district must close schools in order to open new ones being built as part of a $370 million bond issue.

Protests before meeting

Before Monday’s meeting, about 50 people stood outside North High School to protest the proposed school closures.

“We want to show them we really do care about our schools,” said April Stephens, a mother and stepmother of three students at Emerson Open Magnet Elementary.

Stephens said she and several other parents have said they will pull their children out of the Wichita school district if their schools close.

“There’s so much you want to say that you can’t put on signs,” she said. “They need to stop and think about what’s really best for kids.”

Much of the board’s discussion Monday centered on the proposed relocation of Northeast Magnet High School to a new building in Bel Aire.

Several board members, seeking to relieve crowding at Heights High and to respond to concerns from Bel Aire residents who want a neighborhood high school, asked Allison to present scenarios that would reserve spots at the magnet school for students from the Heights district.

Allison presented three scenarios: leaving Northeast a pure magnet with a districtwide lottery; reserving one-fourth of freshman lottery seats for students from the Heights attendance boundary; or taking half of the next freshman class from the Heights boundary and half from the districtwide lottery.

He didn’t endorse an option but said, “When you reserve seats, that definitely changes where we would be for equity for all students.”

Allison also presented more specific enrollment projections, which show that Heights would decrease by about 145 students under the new boundary plan. East High would have about 200 fewer students.

South, North and Southeast would likely get more students next year, he said.

The projections show a new K-8 school at 143rd East and Pawnee opening with just over 200 middle school students, most of them pulled from the Coleman boundary.

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